The Atlantic Ocean: Essays on Britain and America (2008) 365 p.
I first heard of Andrew O’Hagan the way most people probably did, from reading his brilliant profile on Julian Assange which was published in the London Review of Books in February 2014. O’Hagan was contracted as Assange’s ghostwriter for an autobiography which never ended up happening, but it meant he became close to the man in 2011 and 2012, before he went into the Ecuadorian embassy, and the resulting profile is probably one of the best analyses of a living person I’ve ever read. Neither sympathetic nor unsympathetic, it’s a deep, thoughtful and above all sincere analysis of a person – the kind of piece only a novelist could write.
I read a lot of O’Hagan’s other pieces after that, because he has a good and honest writing style and is unafraid to inject his own biases and opinions; I also noted that one of his novels was longlisted for the 2015 Booker. The Atlantic Ocean is just something I picked up because it was on sale at Readings, and despite the thematic linking of America and Europe in its title, it’s a mostly unconnected collection of essays O’Hagan published between the early 1990s and mid-2000s. They cover topics ranging across British farming, Marilyn Monroe, the assassination of JFK, begging, Michael Jackson, George Bush, and dozens of others.
There’s a clear-cut difference between the essays in which O’Hagan discusses things from a distance – often the sort of extensive reviews the LRB publishes when it really wants to discuss a broader issue through the lens of a couple of books – and those in which he draws on his own life experiences and puts himself firmly into the story. The latter are usually far more interesting; there’s a solid piece about the murder of James Bulger in which he reflects on how violent and cruel children can be, and another comparing the lives of two soldiers (one American, one British) who both died on the same day in Iraq. There’s also a piece on Hurricane Katrina, in which he follows a pair of Southern men who want to travel to Louisiana to help people, and in which he curiously keeps himself out of the narrative entirely despite being right there working with them in the disaster zone. I prefer essays by anybody, I think, to involve a personal element; there’s no such thing as a truly disengaged journalist.
Overall this collection mostly fell flat for me, but I think I’ll read one of his novels. And if you never got around to reading his piece on Julian Assange when it got all that buzz two years ago, I thoroughly recommend it.